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The day Farmer’s wizardry almost didn’t happen

It was round 14 in the year 2000.

Melbourne, fighting to retain its grip on the top eight, led Collingwood by a slim three-point margin at half-time.

The mercurial Jeff Farmer, known as ‘The Wizard’ for the way he could do things that other players couldn’t, had touched the ball just twice.

Coach Neale Daniher was furious.

Russell Robertson’s memories of what transpired in the Demons’ changerooms remain vivid 21 years on.

“We all knew we needed a lift from ‘The Wiz’, because he was nowhere to be seen,” Robertson, who kicked 428 goals from 228 games in the red and blue, told

“I’m pretty sure he copped a mouthful from Neale. I might’ve been a little bit smug about that, because I had probably one of the best halves of football to date that I’d ever had (individually), and I was feeling pretty good about that.”

Farmer had been benched before half-time, with his spot on the field taken by fellow small forward Ben Beams. This was, of course, before the interchange bench became part of a team’s strategy of rotating players on and off to ensure that they were fresh.

And Daniher had no plans of bringing the small forward back onto the ground.

“Neale had taken his magnet off the whiteboard and thrown it across the room,” Robertson recounted.

“He said to the coaches ‘I won’t be needing this’, and not in a calm fashion. He was going to leave Ben Beams on, who was, I believe, the player who took Wiz’s place off the bench.”

But Beams soon sustained an injury. Daniher had no option but to reactivate Farmer.

“He did not want to,” said Robertson.

“He had to swallow his pride and bring The Wiz back on. He told the assistant coach at the time, Chris Fagan, to go and find that magnet down in the rooms.

“Off ‘Fages’ went down to the rooms to get the magnet while the game was still playing. Little did Fages know that while he was going down there, the Wizard started to catch fire.”

To the utter astonishment of coaches, fans and players, Farmer returned to the MCG’s hallowed turf to play one of the greatest halves of football ever witnessed.

Nine goals, five contested marks, 15 disposals. All in the second half.

“It was amazing, really. Being in the forward line with him, we just had to get the hell out of his way. He just seemed to be everywhere,” Robertson said.

“That was the thing about ‘The Wiz’. When he wanted the ball, he got it. Some days or some quarters or some halves, he had this ferocious intent to have the ball in his hands.

“He would tell us to get the hell out of his way too, in no uncertain terms. He’d swear at us and tell us to get out of the way, and we just did. He’d do something magical.

“That’s what can happen in sport, and it can certainly happen as a forward. We’re capable of the incredible sometimes, and we’re capable of, just crap.”

Farmer’s magic was contagious.

The Demons went on to win the match by 65 points and won nine of their next 10 games before falling runners-up to Essendon in that year’s Grand Final.

“Confidence is sometimes born from doing amazing things, and watching Wizard do that, we all grew another leg,” Robertson said.

“Neale had to swallow his pride and bring The ‘Wiz’ back on. He told the assistant coach at the time, Chris Fagan, to go and find his magnet down in the rooms.” – Russell Robertson

Rightfully, the events of the day will always be centred around Farmer’s wondrous wizardry.

But it also showcased a side of Daniher — whose more recent fight against motor neurone disease has been characterised by his jovial nature — that has perhaps been left in his coaching past.

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the jocular Daniher of today as the “tyrannical” head coach he once was.

But his tyranny was adored and respected by his players, who knew their coach “had everything sorted”.

“I had this unbelievable respect for him,” Robertson said.

“I knew that whatever he said was gospel, and felt really sure and confident that whatever he said was the right thing. I felt like he had our club sorted. We could just rely on him; we could just play football.

“Such an intelligent man, such a well-respected man. He could give you a bake if you were doing the wrong thing, but you loved him so much.

“I know the guys from the 1950s and 1960s had that same feeling about Norm Smith. They wouldn’t say that they loved him as a person, but they respected the crap out of him, and they wanted to do so much for him. It’s a magical equation to be that as a coach.

“He made me feel like I was important, he made me feel comfortable, he made me feel like I had ability.”

Monday’s seventh edition of the Big Freeze will be staged 21 years and four days since Farmer’s heroics were inspired by that Daniher spray.

This year, Farmer headlines the list of ‘sliders’, who will descend into icy waters at the MCG in the lead-up to Melbourne’s clash with Collingwood – the game itself to be held at the SCG in Sydney as a result of Victoria’s latest lockdown.

Robertson says the slide exemplifies Daniher’s ‘fun’ approach to tackling MND.

“[The slide] is a fun thing. Neale loves to laugh; he loves to crack jokes. In meetings, he loved to laugh at his jokes the most. We all sat back and laughed at him laughing at himself,” he said.

“For us (former players), we go, ‘Yeah, that’s Neale, the slide is all Neale’. It’s all about having fun.”